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It was a gorgeous day for a demonstration.
The mild February air, unusually clear of smog, made the mood more like that of a picnic than a protest. Hundreds of people walked in long columns toward Tehran’s Freedom Square, where a towering, arched, white concrete monument erected by Iran’s deposed leader, the shah, commemorated twenty-five hundred years of Iran’s existence as a unified nation. Peddlers hawked candy and red balloons, while organizers from the government passed out anti-American posters and green headbands proclaiming Iran’s “obvious right” to nuclear energy. On the periphery of the square, buses disgorged workers from factories and students from local schools who had been given the day off but were obliged to spend half of it at the demonstration.
An annual ritual for more than two decades, Revolution Day (February 11) is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Fourth of July, marking the fall of the shah’s last government. But instead of the fireworks most Americans look forward to on that holiday, Iranians are accustomed to verbal pyrotechnics: slogans burned into their brains since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the beetle-browed leader of the revolution, returned to Iran from exile on February 1, 1979. “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” are perennial favorites, with calls to bring down some other government occasionally added for variety. On this particular holiday there was a new attraction: a new president, a blacksmith’s son named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Clad in his customary antielitist attire (a cheap black sports coat over a black shirt, beige sweater vest, and gray pants), Ahmadinejad delivered an hourlong harangue about Iran’s mistreatment by the United States.
A small man on a large stage, he sought to benefit from a confluence of events: the twenty-seventh anniversary of the downfall of the shah; an escalating confrontation with the West over Iran’s nuclear program; protests throughout the Muslim world at the publication of Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed; and just concluded celebrations of Ashura, the most important holiday for Shiite Muslims, commemorating the death in the Iraqi desert in a.d. 680 of the prophet’s grandson, Hossein, at the hands of the army of a brutal ruler. Ahmadinejad tried to stir all these elements into a superpatriotic stew to exhort the crowd into renewed passion for Iran’s Islamic government and to support for its controversial development of nuclear power. The Islamic revolution, the president declared, mirrored the valiant struggle of Hossein and his followers against those who would oppress true Islamic faith. In the same way, the president vowed, Iran would stand up to Western “bullies” who challenged Iran’s “inalienable and undisputed right to produce and use nuclear energy.”
“Western governments and the Great Satan [the United States] can accept insults to the prophets but it’s not legal to talk about the Holocaust,” Ahmadinejad continued, hammering what for him was becoming a favorite theme: the denial of the Nazi murder of six million Jews. “They use this [the Holocaust] to justify what they do to the Palestinians,” he said. “They are the hostages of Zionism.”
The crowd, which overflowed the square, dutifully sang patriotic songs and chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” on cue. Many carried crude signs insulting Israeli and American leaders. Hey Bosh, Shut Up declared a poster that showed a caricature of President Bush standing on a globe wearing underpants made from a U.S. flag. Nuclear Technology Is Our Legitimate Right read another. The Holocaust Is a Big Lie said a third. And, as is de rigueur on such occasions, demonstrators burned U.S. and Israeli flags and crude effigies of Uncle Sam.
Some of the signs looked handmade, but most were props handed out by government officials. Much of the fervor seemed feigned, and the crowd’s attention wandered. Near a wooden scaffold where I stood with several other reporters and cameramen filming the rally, hundreds of schoolgirls bused in for the event milled about as though on a field trip to an amusement park. Over their requisite black scarves, they wore green headbands proclaiming allegiance to Hossein and support for Iran’s right to nuclear energy. On their backs, over enveloping black cloaks called chadors, they wore signboards also declaring that Nuclear Energy Is Our Legitimate Right. But they fidgeted and gossiped with each other other during Ahmadinejad’s maiden Revolution Day speech, barely paying attention to him. And when they spied me on the platform with the other journalists, and found out I was American, they started calling out in English, “What’s your name?” and “We love you!” Then dozens of the girls began passing me small scraps of paper asking for my autograph. Azam Zamani, thirteen, apologized as the “Death to America” chants rose around her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We love Americans.”
Outside and inside the Iranian regime there is tremendous ambivalence about America. No other country is so fixated on the United States. No other foreign government so aspires to and fears a U.S. embrace. No other nation has provoked such a complicated response in return. Iran has been dubbed “the Bermuda triangle” of American diplomacy for swallowing up good-faith U.S. efforts to end the hostility. Iranian officials have struggled to understand domestic U.S. political pressures, while U.S. officials have tried to decipher the motives of Iranian leaders who have decried the Great Satan and funded anti-U.S. terrorists while reaching out to Washington for dialogue and respect. A few American officials have understood that Iran’s harsh rhetoric, support for Middle Eastern militants, and quest for nuclear technology are predicated as much on a sense of insecurity as on a desire to dominate the Middle East. But few have been willing to try bold approaches to deal with that insecurity, for fear of bolstering a repressive government and risking political opposition in the United States.
Iranians are at least equally to blame for the long estrangement between the two countries. Hatred for the United States was a central tenet of the revolution against the U.S.-backed shah and became a habit that was difficult to break. There has been a constant fear among Iranian politicians that they would reach out to America only to be humiliated, or that rivals in Iran’s complex political system would use such overtures against them. “Suppose we sit in dialogue with the United States, and they reject oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea through Iran,” Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister, said in a 2001 interview, referring to U.S. pressures on Central Asian nations to send their oil west out to Turkey rather than using the shortest route, south through Iran to the Persian Gulf. “We would lose the image of Iran in the Islamic world,” he said. Conservative political forces repeatedly sabotaged attempts by Iran to improve relations with the United States when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was in power. That would make him too popular, they feared, and doom their own chances for a comeback. Once in power, some of these same conservatives seemed to fear reconciliation with the United States as much or more than a U.S. military strike, which could consolidate support for the regime.
Iranian efforts to drum up hatred of the United States have waxed and waned over the years, and the lobby of the Homa Hotel was a good barometer of prevailing official sentiment. On my first visit, in November 1996, there were large gold letters over the elevator bank: Down with USA (although the spacing between the letters was off so it actually read: down withu sa). By my next visit, in 1998, after Khatami’s election, the slogan was gone at his command. In 2001, it was replaced by a discreet placard downstairs from the lobby on a bulletin board near the men’s room. Attributed to the “Islamic association of Homa hotel,” it said in small letters: Down with Israel. Down with USA. It was put up in honor of Jerusalem Day, a pro-Palestinian event celebrated yearly by the Iranian regime on the last day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, in which the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed. Two days after the holiday, the sign had vanished.
The bellmen, desk clerks, and waiters in the hotel, many of whom had worked there when it was a Sheraton, welcomed me back each time I returned to Iran like a long-lost relative. On my first visit a doorman said, “America very good” and put his two pinkies together, signaling his desire for better ties. Ten years later a bellman pulled out his old identity card from the 1970s with his name in English and his photo with long hair and sideburns. “Those were the good days,” he sighed.
A poll taken in 2002 showed that more than 70 percent of Iranians wanted relations restored with the United States. The pollster—ironically a ringleader of the 1979–81 seizure of the U.S. Embassy—was jailed, and no such survey has been taken since. Opportunities for reconciliation have come and gone repeatedly over the past twenty-eight years, especially since the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists. From Iran’s perspective, those attacks were both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the Bush administration declared war on Iran’s two greatest regional foes: the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan that harbored al-Qaeda and also had murdered Farsi-speaking Afghan Shiites and Iranian diplomats; and the secular Baathist dictatorship of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, which had invaded Iran in 1980 and was responsible for the deaths of three hundred thousand Iranians. A curse because those two wars brought U.S. troops to Iran’s borders and briefly raised the hopes of some Iranians that a similar act of “liberation” would rid them of a repressive clerical government.
The public response in Iran to the September 11 attacks showed how different Iran, a non-Arab country, is from much of the rest of the Muslim world. While many Arabs celebrated what they saw as a long-deserved blow against the prime supporter of Israel, many Iranians held spontaneous candlelit demonstrations in sympathy with the U.S. victims. With links to a diaspora of nearly a million people in the United States, little regard for Arabs, and a cultural appreciation for innocent victims of violence, Iranians instinctively felt a connection with those who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
When I visited Iran a few months after the attacks, warm emotions toward the United States were running strong. Young people were sporting Gap jeans and washing down their shish kebab with “the real thing”: Coca-Cola, produced for the first time since the Islamic revolution under license in the eastern Iranian shrine city of Mashhad. The drink had come to symbolize America, and consuming it in public was a political statement in favor of U.S.-Iran reconciliation. Iranian parliamentarians, previously fearful of praising Americans on the record to foreign journalists, openly advocated restoring relations with the United States. “The equation has changed since September 11,” said one of them, Gholamheidar Ebrahimby-Salami, then a representative from a town near the Afghan border. Iran should “definitely” have formal diplomatic ties with the United States, he said. Mahmoud Kashani, an independent presidential candidate in the 2001 elections, said that had he been elected, “that day would have been the beginning of direct negotiations” with the United States. Even Ali Khamenei, who became Iran’s supreme religious leader after the death in 1989 of Ayatollah Khomeini, suspended the ritual chant of “Death to America” at Friday prayers at Tehran University out of deference to American feelings. When they resumed, some Iranians jokingly changed the slogan to “Margh bar Amrika-ye aziz”: Death to the dear America.
The Bush administration focused not on what Iran had done to help the United States but on Iranian interference in Afghanistan that American officials said ran counter to U.S. interests. Most damaging of all, on January 3, 2002, Israeli commandos seized a ship, the Karine A, alleged to be carrying Iranian weapons for Yasser Arafat’s Palestininian Authority via the Red Sea. A speechwriter, David Frum, had suggested the word “axis” to refer to America’s enemies in a draft for Bush’s State of the Union address later that month. Another speechwriter, Michael Gerson, turned the word into the phrase “axis of evil,” and Bush filled in the blanks with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.
The Bush administration appeared to have no idea what impact its words would have. Condoleezza Rice, at the time of the speech Bush’s national security advisor, told me four years later that “what is funny about it is that [the phrase] didn’t really catch my eye.” For many Iranians, however, the remark was devastating. Those who had worked for an end to enmity with the United States and for reform in their own country said they felt like jilted lovers. Khamenei and Iranian hard-liners “used Bush’s words against us,” said Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric. It became unpatriotic, he told me, to advocate relations with the United States. Conservatives used the speech to justify new efforts to exclude reformers from office. A clerical council that vetted candidates barred most of the reformist parliament from running for re-election in 2004 and disqualified many others who sought the presidency in 2005. Despite this draconian culling, all but one of the eight candidates permitted to run for president put forward platforms suggesting that they would reach out to the United States, understanding that would have broad popular appeal. “The mere fact that I am sitting here with you means we have no differences with the American people,” Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily cleric who had previously served two presidential terms, told me in an interview in 2005 that kicked off his new campaign.
The exception was Ahmadinejad, who defeated Rafsanjani in a runoff in June, profiting from a protest vote against one of Iran’s richest men. “Our nation has no significant need for the United States,” Ahmadinejad said in his first press conference as president.1 Seven months later he expanded on his anti-American views in an interview with me, his first with a U.S. newspaper. “We have in this world six billion people,” he said. “It’s not an American club.” The United States thinks “that no one can live without them and this is a wrong notion. We have proved we can live without them.”
For all its incendiary rhetoric, Iran is the Rodney Dangerfield of Middle Eastern nations, a country that believes it deserves but has invariably been denied sufficient respect. Iranians have long felt that they were owed special attention because of Iran’s location on the Persian Gulf, large oil resources, and ancient history. Even as they have confronted the United States and called for the downfall of American governments, they have watched with poorly concealed envy the growing U.S. alliance with neighboring nations India and Pakistan and the U.S. and Western investment poured into tiny Arab sheikdoms across the Persian Gulf.
Unlike Iraq, which was cobbled together by the British after World War I from the ruins of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Iran has been a unified nation for more than two thousand years. More than five hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, a Persian king, Cyrus the Great, built an empire that stretched from present-day Turkey to Afghanistan. The empire crumbled, but Iranian civilization triumphed. It absorbed waves of invaders from Greeks to Mongols to Turks and Arabs, changing the invaders more than it was itself transformed.
Even Islam took on a unique form when it came in contact with Iran. In pre-Islamic times, Iran—or Persia, as it was known until the twentieth century—gave rise to a religion, Zoroastrianism, that had a single supreme God and a well-developed concept of right and wrong. Iranians still celebrate the Zoroastrian new year by jumping over fires and other pre-Islamic behavior.
Most Iranians today are Shiites, a minority among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, who initially broke away in a dispute over who should succeed the prophet Mohammed. Shiites believe it should have been Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, followed by other blood relatives, including Ali’s son, Hossein. Shah Ismail, who ruled from 1501 to 1526, made Shiite Islam Iran’s state religion, but the form the faith took—with many European and pre-Islamic characteristics—has more in common with Catholicism and evangelical Christianity than it does with the austere Sunni Islam that predominates in the Arab nations across the Persian Gulf. For example, the most important Shiite holiday, Ashura, in Iran and other Shiite centers feels like Good Friday, with passion plays about Hossein’s death and parades of men and boys carrying heavy cross-shaped metal platforms, called alamat, adorned with symbols of the twelve most important Shiite religious figures, or imams. Most Shiites, known as Twelver Shiites for their reverence for these religious figures, believe that the twelfth imam, a young boy who went into hiding for his own protection in the ninth century, will return as a mahdi, or messiah, to bring justice to the world. The concept is similar to the fundamentalist Christian belief in the return of Christ and the Day of Judgment. Indeed, Christ is supposed to accompany the mahdi on his return to Earth.
The Shiite theme of resistance to oppression figures deeply in the Iranian psyche. In modern-day Iran, Yazid, the evil caliph whose forces massacred Hossein and his followers in the desert in the seventh century, has been compared to both President Bush and Saddam Hussein. Iranian propaganda has portrayed U.S. economic sanctions against Iran and efforts to deny it nuclear technology as part of a conspiracy against Muslims and citizens of developing nations in general. In his speeches Ahmadinejad casts the Israelis and Palestinians in a similar passion play. Injustice is to be resisted now, the Iranian leader says, just as it was by Hossein fourteen centuries ago.
Iran’s history of empire and invasion has made its people welcoming and at the same time distrustful and prone to conspiracy theories about perceived foreign plots. Iranians still nurse grudges against Britain and Russia, which took advantage of Iranian weakness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to wrest concessions from a failing Turkic dynasty, the Qajars. The Qajars financed a lavish and decadent court by selling off land, economic monopolies, and exclusive rights to Iran’s natural resources. The sale of a tobacco monopoly to a British company headed by an army major in 1891 led to Iran’s first mass protests and foreshadowed a 1906 revolt that led to the creation of a short-lived parliament.
In the twentieth century, a more disciplined monarch arose—a
Russian-trained army officer named Reza Khan. He seized power in 1925 and sought to drag Iran from feudalism to modernity in the space of only a few decades. He decreed that Iranians must wear Western dress and that women must not wear the veil outside their homes, a hugely controversial edict that boomeranged a half century later when the chador became a rallying symbol in the Islamic revolution. Reza Shah, as he became known after seizing power, limited the traditional powers of the clergy by requiring that judges hold university law degrees and depriving clerics of the authority to notarize documents, a major source of income. He also established a network of secular schools and universities that undermined the clergy’s previous monopoly over education and tried to modernize the curriculum taught to seminary students. All this engendered hostility that became a foundation for clerical opposition to the shah’s son.
In foreign policy Reza Shah reached out to the United States, seeking a counterweight to Russian and British influence, but also sought an alliance with Nazi Germany. Allied powers forced him to abdicate in 1941 and placed his son, Mohammad Reza, upon the throne. A weaker and more conflicted figure, the new shah continued Iran’s march toward economic development and modernization, and he strengthened Iran’s ties to the world’s rising superpower, the United States.
He faced his first great challenge when Mohammed Mossadegh, a wildly popular and eccentric prime minister who had supported the 1906 revolution, persuaded the Iranian parliament to pass legislation in 1951 that nationalized Iran’s British-run oil company. In an appeal that was a precursor to that used by Ahmadinejad to justify Iran’s nuclear program, Mossadegh sought to put Iran’s action in the context of postwar struggles by developing countries for a more equitable international system. He said his “movement served as inspiration to national risings of other peoples” in the Third World. The Eisenhower administration, encouraged by Britain, ordered the CIA to organize a coup in 1953 that overthrew Mossadegh and put the shah back on the throne. The coup is still a source of grievance in Iran every bit as bitter as the 1979–81 seizure of U.S. Embassy hostages remains for most Americans.
The shah repaid his U.S. benefactors for rescuing his reign by acting as an American surrogate in the Persian Gulf, managing to be a close ally to both Israel and Saudi Arabia. He went on a shopping spree, buying an expensive arsenal of U.S. weapons, wasting Iranian resources in a way that aroused considerable domestic opposition. Prodded by President Kennedy, the Iranian leader also sought to show he could be a modern monarch by introducing new social reforms, including voting and other rights for women. However, the shah went too far for religious conservatives, and in 1964, he exiled their most prominent leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, after Khomeini protested a law granting immunity from prosecution to U.S. diplomats, military advisers, and their families in Iran. Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Slavin. All rights reserved.